SIFF previews: Disco and Atomic War; Behind the Bizarre Life of a A Beat Icon; and Sexy Surrealism from Omar of Mars Volta

Even though we’ve covered a lot of the Seattle International Film Festival’s Face The Music films already on the KEXP Blog, still coming up is the live scoring of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt and Lemony Snicket at the Paramount Theatre on Wednesday, June 9; and the soulfully nectarous documentary Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae, showing first Friday, June 11 at the Uptown and then Sunday the 13th at the SIFF Cinema.

SIFF also has many movies of possible interest to music fans not in the FTM series; below are three I highly recommend from different strands of time and sound.

Disco and Atomic War
directed by Jaak Kilmi
(Estonia, 80 minutes)

Festival Screenings:

June 7, 9:30 PM, The Egyptian
June 9, 7 PM, Kirkland Performance Center

A succinct and smartly made documentary that makes the filmmaker’s homeland of Estonia seem like an invention by science fiction author J.G. Ballard, this is an inimitable movie about the uses and misuses of propaganda. Like the lyrics of a David Bowie song, Western pop culture broadcasts from Finland tries to absorb the minds of Soviet youth, as their culture supposedly attempts to jam it. Cigarettes, sexy spies, the finest meats, and other seductions are used to taunt Communists but the barely received transmissions are immensely popular even when scattered by government interception.

The title answers the question why disco is perennially popular as counter-culture music in that part of Europe, bordering on the West. It was the most decadent, least “meaningful” way to draw in people who found hope only in hedonism, ideology becoming a farce to starve to. “Image a world in which you cannot watch Finnish programming on a Soviet TV,” director Jaak Kilmi narrates, showing how his father built converters in a crowded room in their apartment. His uncle helped neighbors see the baiting programming on Finnish TV even when his own mother had to put up a front by joining a neighborhood watch group seeking out violating audiences. Converters were alternately taken out and put back in hospital and public room TVs depending on the current crack down by authorities. Conspiratorial questions arise: Exactly what WAS David Hasselhoff doing in Germany? And were these semi-obfuscated Finnish shows (taunting with a show about the lustrous works of a friendly butcher, for example) actually a plot by the Soviets to test the limits of Western propaganda on Estonians? Of course, considering what happened to the Soviet Union once these shows from just over the border were bootlegged and rebroadcast, that experiment apparently got out of hand.

Though western pop music was obviously a great way to entice Soviet youth to “see that other people were living more freely, that the standard of living was higher” in a “rotting Capitalism” — the weirdest moment is when the showing of luxuriant, uber-decadent Emmanuelle over the banned airwaves unified the country in a totally communal money shot-cum-universal pop moment. The birth rate shot up enormously from that night all over Central and Eastern Europe — but if the Soviet government had tried to send out a signal to obliterate it, it might have triggered the missiles from such a strong electronic command, and we could have all possibly gone up in a mushroom cloud nuclear orgasm.


William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
directed by Yony Leyser
(USA , 90 minutes)

Festival Screenings:

June 10, 4 PM, the Neptune
June 12, 6:30 PM, Harvard Exit

If you’re a fan of transgressive (weird, fucked up, futurist-mutation) rock music, and read some on who your musical heroes drawn from as literary inspiration, you’ve more than likely gleaned info about William S. Burroughs. The Zelig of progressive thought, punk energy, and timeless rebellion in the suit of the Company Man, this is the first full length documentary on his adventurous life, and deserves to be so, with plenty of enthusiastic, informative, often loving remembrances from Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, Laurie Anderson, Genesis P-Orridge, Jello Biafra, Gus Van Sant, and many others. Insiders like underground publisher V. Vale gives great info, estate keeper and adopted lover James Gruaerholz chats about his struggles finding love, and David Cronenberg reveals what it was like to work with him on the revolutionary film version of the text-torturing “Naked Lunch” (which the American government actually tried to have banned in the late 50s/early 60s).

Burroughs’ inspiring ideas about social control and gender issues are at the forefront of the loosely chronological narrative which touches on all the necessary bases — a life of a tragic accidental death of his wife (Joan Vollmer, whom he shot in the head); substance abuse (off and on heroin and other injectables, his later vice, Vodka and coke); his love of men and yet his need to not be categorized as simply “gay” — and yet somehow balances all of it at once. Biography, ideology, and even some interesting suggestions behind his ferociously non-conformist life and work are all on display and tastefully extrapolated. This is possibly my favorite documentary of SIFF this year; I spent a whole day with the screener, just wallowing in its coverage and taking breaks to read Burroughs’ essential tomes like the journalistic “Junky” and “Queer” and his later non-fiction. “A Man Within” should be very satisfying alike for old fans and fans of the musicians who speak about him and want to know more about Burroughs.


The Sentimental Engine Slayer
directed by Omar Rodriguez Lopez
(USA , 97 minutes)

Festival Screenings:

June 10, 9:30 PM, SIFF Cinema
June 11, 4 PM, SIFF Cinema

Just as Omar Rodriguez Lopez can make music with Mars Volta that sounds like sex and death and cake and automobiles and apocalypse and making out all sound like the same torqued riff from the end of time, his debut work of cinematic fiction (writer/director) is similarly blender-souled. Visually enticing and confusing, with a Catholic church melting in an El Paso noonday heat and hallucination sticking all around the struggle out of adolescence for teenage Barlam (Lopez himself) whose quest to carnally connect is as disassociating as the universe itself. Junkie sister Natalia seems as destructive as it is reinforcing, his employer Oscar is like a freak Trickster who is either exploiting or helping to grow him, and Natalia’s boyfriend Zack seems the confused Mr. Jones who just wandered on to the set of life as it crashes down. Barlam is questioning what it means to be male in a world where maleness is shifting, not just in terms of physical place in society, but in a metaphysical and psychosexual sense as well. Like a grimmer back issue of Love & Rockets come to life (Gilbert Hernandez half of the comic), or a post-psychedelic Latin surrealist Tommy, this is one of the most surprising, shocking, and must-watch-again films of the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival.

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